Boswell’s Bowels

Neal Ascherson

  • James Boswell: The Later Years 1769-1795 by Frank Brady
    Heinemann, 609 pp, £20.00, November 1984, ISBN 0 434 08530 8

James Boswell created the ‘Age of Johnson’, rescuing the late 18th century, above all, for the Victorians. The Boswell industry at Yale University has given an ‘Age of Boswell’ to the 20th century. This second volume of the grand Frederick Pottle-Frank Brady biography marks the climax of that long achievement. Climax, but not end: in some country-house loft or uncleared bank vault, I would bet, lies the huge bundle which is the missing Johnson-Boswell correspondence. But that discovery, if and when it comes, can only ornament what has already been done. We know more about James Boswell than about any other human being who inhabited the earth two hundred years ago.

As Boswell’s journals and letters and papers came to light and were published, in that long treasure-hunt which began in 1927 at Malahide in Ireland, so most of the disparaging myths about him progressively fell away. After his death in 1795, it was said that he was so effectively locked out of good society after the publication of the Life of Johnson (1791) that he fell into solitary, alcoholic decline. This was as untrue as Mrs Thrale’s accusation that he dampened all social occasions by scribbling notes: it has now been shown that he relied mostly on his phenomenal memory. The Victorians, Carlyle in particular, saw him as an egregious little parasite or groupie, a useful but unworthy drainpipe through which the greatness of Dr Johnson had to flow to reach posterity. Today, the Journals allow Boswell’s own mind and perception to stand serious comparison with Montaigne. The reeling Scotch alcoholic has been replaced by a man who drank heavily and desperately, who was frequently very drunk, but who could at any time resign the habit and never suffered serious physical punishment as the result of it. The womaniser, not long ago described on the evidence of the Journals as a ‘satyriatic’ monster of lust, dissolves in the light of new studies of male sexual behaviour; Boswell was highly sexed, but certainly not a sexual athlete. Living in an Edinburgh and a London when pulling an amateur hooker off the street was easier and not much more expensive than buying a drink in a pub, Boswell was only exceptional in the candour with which he records his ‘inconsistencies’, as he liked to call them.

The Victorians were repelled by Boswell’s glorying in his own successes, by his conceit. ‘I had a full relish of life today ... I just sat and hugged myself in my own mind.’ Or ‘I was the great man ... in a suit of imperial blue, lined with rose-coloured silk, and ornamented with rich gold-wrought buttons. What a motley scene is life.’ This sort of thing is attractive in our own age, much impressed by male peacocks ‘in touch with their own feelings’. But one disparagement does stick even now. It is the charge that in the end there is something unpleasantly voyeurish about Boswell, a pathological hankering to goggle at extremes of mental and physical suffering – public executions, mournings, death-beds – and even to poke the fire a little if the flames were not lurid enough for his taste. This, too, is wrong. Boswell’s interest in such scenes sprang not from some unadmitted taste but from a search for something quite specific, which I’ll return to later.

The first volume of the biography, Pottle’s James Boswell: The Earlier Years, took him up to his marriage and the age of 30. The pattern of his life – and its central indecision, which was never to be resolved – had already been laid down. At one end of the still only precariously united kingdom, Boswell played the parts of an Edinburgh advocate and of a ‘young laird’ who was heir to the estates of Auchinleck. He was a reasonably successful lawyer, popular in the Faculty for his eloquence, wit and rakishness; he had figured in the greatest civil trial of his times, the ‘Douglas Cause’ over the rightful inheritance of one of Scotland’s most powerful dynasties. But there remained something amateurish about his approach to the law. Boswell worked hard enough on his briefs, but, as his colleagues felt, he took everything too much to heart; defeat in court, particularly in a murder case, was something he never learned to accept but treated as a personal disaster. As for his relationship with his father, who remarried on the same day that Boswell married Margaret Montgomerie, this was a very Scottish stew of boiling resentment and unrequited filial love. And at the other end of his life was London, opening onto the world itself.

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